Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Highs and Lows of Case Work

I have now been at my job for the greater part of two months, and I finally feel like I have a grasp on what I'm supposed to be doing.  I love working with all my clients, even though there are a few that are frustrating to deal with sometimes.  And I finally feel comfortable referring them to all of the different resources that Baltimore has to offer, though there are still lots to learn.

Case work has been a very rewarding, albeit exhausting, experience.  When I sit at the desk with a client and hear their story, all the hardships they've had to go through it, it effects you.  There have been three experiences with my clients that have moved me in one way or another, even though they're not always good.  I want to tell you about these three experiences.

1.  In my two months here I have learned that Baltimore apparently does not have seasons.  Only a few weeks ago the highs were still in the nineties, until in literally just a couple days the high was in the low sixties, and the nights were getting very cold.  Luckily, one of the services I am able to offer my clients is one winter coat per year.  As soon as the weather turned, these coats were in high demand.  One specific client came in and asked if there was any way I could give him a coat, which I more than happy to do.  When I went back to our cabinets that hold the coats and brought it out, his face just let up with a smile.  He was so happy and so thankful that I gave him a coat, a task which is considerably easier than some of the things I try to do for my clients.  But it only got better.  The next three days when I walked into the center, he was sitting in the lounge area we have for clients.  Each time his face let up with that contagious smile and kept telling me how much he liked the coat.  It was amazing for me to see that something as small as giving someone a coat had such a large impact.

2.  Obviously, not all my experiences with clients are this successful, or rewarding for both myself and the client.  One afternoon a woman came in looking for housing.  This is a relatively common occurrence, after all most of my clients are homeless.  The issue with housing in Baltimore is that there simply is not enough, and most of the places I help people apply for have lengthy waiting lists.  While helping my client fill out an application for a transitional housing unit, she asked me what kind of place it was.  I explained, that like most, this would be an apartment or house where she would have her own room but have a common living area with a few other women.  This was unacceptable.  My client began to tell me that she expected to get her own town house where she could live my herself.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention that her income was only about $100 a month!  I tried to explain to her that this was unrealistic, that the people who work with me don't even have places like that.  We filled out the rest of the application, when she asked that if she got into this housing program, could she turn it down.  I was astounded by this.  Of course she could turn it down, but she's homeless!  I would have thought that she would take anything she could get to at least get out of the shelters, but I guess I was wrong.  There are of course a few clients that I have met with who appear ungrateful and demanding, but there are many more who make my experience so fulfilling.

3.  None more so than this third client.  Everyone morning only 8 people are allowed to sign up for casework, and even if they don't all show up, I'm not supposed to meet with anyone not on the list.  One afternoon a couple of weeks ago I had finished with all my clients when a man asked me if he could meet with me.  I started to explain to him the rules for case work, but when I looked into his eyes I saw a look of such sadness and desperation that I was moved to break the rules.  I brought him back to the case work desk and started the intake process, something we do with each new client to get to know their background a little bit.  One section asks about medical history, and one of the questions I have to ask clients is if they have HIV/Aids.  When I asked this he said yes and said I probably didn't want to hear about that.  It was very difficult for me to convey to him that I had no reservations about him being HIV positive and that that would in no way impact the way I worked with him.  The biggest thing that got to me about this specific client though was that even though it wasn't a big deal that I met with him and that I was able to give him a new change of clothes, he must have shook my hand and said thank you at least ten times.  He was so happy that someone finally appeared to give a damn about him.  I'm starting to realize now how important it is to not cast off the homeless people of this world as less than us.  That's total garbage and it leads to the prejudices we have against this population.

One of the things I have been doing the past week or so is training a new person, an older volunteer, in doing case work.  Unfortunately she lacks the computer skills to really do this job, but I also noticed that I was genuinely with the way she interacted with the clients, many of which I had met with before.  I expressed this concern with my director who was very happy that I had gotten to the point where I am defensive of my clients.  I thought about this some more and realized that it wasn't selfishness that made me think I should be the only working with the clients in case work, but the fact that I want the best for my clients and I feel they have a better chance for that with me instead of the other case worker.  It's also been important for me to get to know my clients and to follow through no matter how long it takes to get them whatever they are looking for.

Some other things that have been happening in Baltimore:

1.  I've had an awesome time getting to know the city, which has more then I expected to offer.  We've been going out to some bars, a couple of cheap restaurants, an amazing free bookstore that is only a few minutes walk from my house, and yesterday we went to the national aquarium as a community night.  I feel comfortable in this city now, even though everything is telling me that I shouldn't.  We also went to a really cool Aids awareness rally last Saturday down at the inner harbor.  This was a great experience for me to feel like part of the Baltimore community.

2.  Things have been going very well overall with my community.  We did a thing last week called a Dyad where we each met with one another individually and discussed our relationships.  It was a great opportunity for us to get anything of our chests that we needed to and has really helped me break through with my roommates that I had been struggling with.

3.  One of the things we decided to do as a community is run a 10k for a charity in Annapolis.  The race is the sunday right before Thanksgiving, and for the past couple of weeks I've been training, and it has been positively awful.  But I have noticed that my endurance is steadily increasing and this will surely help me accomplish one of my goals I had for this year in losing weight.

4.  I also have some other really cool things planned for the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.  Besides the race,  I plan on going to Washington D.C. twice, for the Stewart/Colbert rally, which I am excited for, and then the Ignatian Teach-in, which should be a great learning experience to share with the rest of the Jesuit community.  The week after Halloween I'll be going up to Newark, NJ for the JVC Halloween party, which should be a mess but a ton of fun.

While I have gotten over my homesickness, it was weird for me to spend my first birthday away from home.  I'm never one to make a big deal of my birthday but I definitely wish I could have spent it with my best friends and family.

That's all for now, please post any comments or questions you have!  I love and miss you all.  Go Phillies!!

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